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Search and Rescue Society of British Columbia



Author Unknown

The manner in which a search and rescue unit responds to an emergency provides a yardstick with which to evaluate its leadership, supervision, tactical planning, logistical capabilities, and the individual competence of its members. In the instances where the organization's performance is determined to be only marginally adequate or even wholly unacceptable, it may be found that the managerial approach to the operation was unsound from the outset, in terms of mis-expenditures of time, manpower, or equipment. In other cases the problem may be traced to deficiencies in basic communication skills, to the extent that team members were deployed without knowing their precise assignments. Finally, even in high-risk public safety occupations there is a tendency to respond to each call for service with merely anecdotal ("if it worked before, it will work for us again"), rather than the analytical ("what were the strengths and weaknesses, and how could we have done it?") problem solving strategies.

In his discussion about the Anatomy of a Search, Stan Bush cited handicaps to "victim orientation" that result from "strong feelings of competition, defensive reaction and pride that can seriously hamper...operations...". Bush concedes that rescuers "do not have all the answers" and that "we need to understand that there are different techniques that are effective".

While there exist some general guidelines among SAR organizations for collecting and disseminating information vital to effective field deployment, other agencies are often called upon in the initial emergency response and are far less skilled in backcountry operations. There is a need for some standardized approach to issuing tactical directives at all levels of the operation.

Structured Format

A Structured Format provides supervisory levels with a checklist of necessary tasks and a managerially sound method of delivering task-based information to the lower levels. Secondly, a format sets the stage for continuity in receiving, in readily comprehensive style, data which the members will recognize as necessary to the successful accomplishment of the mission. The result, when the members fully understand what is expected of them and given a reasonable outline of how to do the job, is an increase in productivity and confidence. This is true whether weeks or only moments of preparation are available. Finally, structured formats provide an effective platform on which to conduct productive post-operation critiques, thereby reducing the tendency to lose direction, to inadvertently overlook an important trouble spot, or to intentionally justify areas of deficiency due to "ego involvement". A well-structured debriefing will also afford ample opportunity for emphasizing the strong points and complimentary aspects of the operation, the unit and the individual members.

A complex event like a SAR operation may best be evaluated by dividing it into its various parts for simplification. Once isolated, these parts may be more readily examined. During the actual execution phase of the operation, several of those components may be active simultaneously, but the academic separation makes it possible for the team members -- particularly command staff -- to discipline themselves toward the development of systematic survey and analysis. The point, is that experience alone doesn't always result in better judgement or even in technical proficiency. Some mechanism must be available to help the leader to relate his total experience to the specific task at hand.

Situation Analysis

The fire service has become very adept at Situation Analysis. It uses the descriptive term "size-up" in referring to the mental evaluations made by the person-in-charge of the emergency operation, which enables him to determine his course of action pursuant to the accomplishment of the mission. This Estimate of the Situation (EOS) should begin with pre-emergency planning, and is based upon the premise that it is unreasonable to expect rescuers to operate optimally during emergency conditions with no prior academic or technical preparation. The EOS examines conditions before and after arrival at the scene as information becomes available and circumstances change; it is an ongoing process, rather than a single action. The Operation (Incident) Commander (also referred to as "The Boss") must plan for the effective use of available time, particularly in the mobilization phase. Backward Planning is a method of time management that permits the Boss to schedule pre-deployment activity by allocating maximum time periods for each task requirement, beginning at a target time (the time of completion) of his last priority objective and working back to the time of arrival at the assembly site or to the moment of call-out or first alert.

Whenever possible, the Boss should personally or by competent representative, make a physical reconnaissance of the probable search area, by aircraft or from high ground. A map or photo survey may suffice if those resources are current, and a physical overview is not practical. An experienced, reliable person who is familiar with the area is often an excellent adjunct to orientation. Incident reports from previously conducted actual or simulated searches can provide tactical hints much the same way that the fire service utilizes pre-fire plans. The other task that should only rarely be delegated from the Boss's personal responsibility is the interrogation of the Reporting Party. He should insist on collecting firsthand information from the R/P to ensure the accuracy and relevancy of essential data upon which his operation must be based. In his estimate of the situation, the Boss:

  1. collects essential facts;
  2. considers what probabilities the facts indicate; and,
  3. evaluates his unit's capabilities for dealing with the facts and the probabilities.

Analyze, Act, and Anticipate

In other words, the Commander must constantly Analyze, Act, and Anticipate (AAA). His analysis queries what has happened, who is there to help, and what equipment is necessary. Upon receipt of First Notice (when the unit leader is notified by an alerting authority of an impending potential mission), a highly condensed analysis may be outlined as a memory aid with the acronym LIFE: Location, Injuries, First Aid rendered or needed, and Equipment requirements.

The Boss's actions seek to identify the hazards that do exist, eliminating those problems that can be eliminated and guarding against creating any new hazards. The Boss anticipates events or circumstances that are likely, but which have not yet occurred. The probabilities include climactic changes, the extension of the SAR area of responsibility due to the lost person's rate and direction of travel, the reaction times of assisting agencies, and the response times for performing related tasks. "Worst Case Strategy" is appropriate here, including, but not limited to, Murphy's Law ("If anything can go wrong, it will") and Hoare's Law ("Inside every large problem there is a small problem struggling to get out").

Research by William G. Syrotuck has indicated that it is more important to recognize that a known percentage of lost persons is found within a predictable radius than it is to know how they got there. In his Analysis of Lost Person Behaviour, Syrotuck therefore, suggests that predictions of the missing person's likely location is particularly valuable because there are usually insufficient manpower and logistical resources to search all possible places and because environmental and physiological factors may make expeditious recovery an immediate survival factor. An effective management technique for establishing priorities in search, according to that author, may be decision by consensus. This method utilizes a vote -- preferably by secret ballot to avoid bias -- of experienced personnel to determine probable routes and direction of travel, etc.

Five Paragraph Operation Order (SMEAC)

With some revision, the Five Paragraph Operation Order used by military tacticians provides an excellent vehicle for gathering and communicating essential information for the search and rescue function. It is an outline of mental evolutions by which the Boss can assemble and classify the facts of complex situations, determine a solution based upon those facts, arrive at a problem-solving decision, and then formulate a plan to execute his decision. Since the format is fairly comprehensive and will generally cover most of the information requirements, the Boss should announce at the beginning of the delivery that questions will be presented during the final phase of the briefing. Also, in order for the Boss to maintain the clarity and integrity of his briefing in this format, where no information exists for a given format component, the SAR members should be informed of that intentional omission. The structure of the Five Paragraph Operation Order follows the acronym SMEAC as a memory device.


SITUATION: This introductory paragraph provides requisite orientation data, but does not explain how the job will get done or who will do it. It is a brief, descriptive narrative which includes, but is not limited to, the following types of information:

  1. Age and mental condition of the subject.
  2. Physical and clothing description.
  3. Time, place, and direction of travel when last observed (and to avoid confusing "duplicate" sightings, by whom?).
  4. Physical condition and wilderness experience.
  5. Equipment, food, water, and survival essentials available to the subject.
  6. Apparent credibility of the source of the above information.
  7. Previous SAR history of the area (have lost persons tended to move toward the lights of a distant city? Followed drainages? Stayed on the high ground?).
  8. Identify:

*   a) Environmental Factors: geographical features, topography, vegetation, man-made features, danger areas, times of sunrise/sunset, temperature extremes, weather forecast, wind-chill factor, etc.

*   b) Attachments: give the name and location of mutual-aid agencies and other special assistance assigned directly to your unit (communicators, aircraft, law enforcement, trackers, cliff, water, or cave rescue technicians, etc.)

*   c) Detachments: identify members or equipment normally operating with your unit that are unavailable for deployment on this operation. If there are no such absences, say so.

  1. Is the missing person a member of a group that has any standing relevant policy (e.g. a designated rendezvous point or an understanding that active search will be curtailed during the hours of darkness).
  2. Have any other organized or individual efforts already occurred in an attempt to locate and/or extract the missing person? What is their present location and activity? Have members of your unit, such as an immediate response team, already been in service? To what extent have your resources already been committed?
  3. Clue Orientation: herein is provided any additional data pertaining to the discovery of the subject, such as a shoe sole print, length of stride, etc. Discuss relevancy of any previously discovered clues or signs (was an earlier sighted article of clothing -- give coordinates -- positively identified as being search-related or as an "incidental").
  4. Identify the topographical map sheet(s) necessary for effective coordination and navigation for this operation. Are there any supplemental maps (park service, road maps, etc.) that will be helpful? Are photocopy or other copy services available? Where may these aids be obtained?
  5. Travel Aids: determine routes of least resistance that may provide the lost person with some sense of direction, however accurate or inaccurate it may be for him. These include such funnelling features as fire breaks, dry stream beds or other natural drainages, game trails, power lines, etc.
  6. Travel Barriers: suggest features that would probably present a significant obstacle to the lost person's travel efforts.
  7. Confusion Factors: may be terrain features at which a wandering person was or is likely to become further disoriented, either because the terrain of one area approximates that of another area and is easily mistaken for it, or because of trail-masking by snow, rockslide, or the overgrowth of vegetation, etc.

MISSION: This section is merely a brief "Position Statement" containing the known or assumed location of the subject, the general nature of the problem in terms of the purpose of the operation (search, rescue, body recovery, etc.), and the identification of the tactical area of responsibility of units -- based upon information presented by the situation. This component explains what the Boss intends to do but does not detail how he is going to do it.

The mission, capabilities, and limitations of the next higher and subordinate support agencies should be defined in this section of the operation order. Be sure to clarify the roles of each agency for each call-out, particularly when assembling for action in other political jurisdictions, so that the integrity of command and control is not compromised, and to ensure that confusion regarding authority, responsibility, and accountability is reduced to workable levels of efficiency.

EXECUTION: It is tempting to state that this is the most important portion of the operation order, except for the fact that each component is interdependent. Nevertheless, this section contains detailed instructions for every unit member about how the mission is to be accomplished. Some of the features are:

1) Concept of the Operation

This goal statement presents a broad overview of the SAR operation and provides the incident Boss with his first real opportunity to exercise his creativity. Here, for example, he may relate to a prior similar actual or simulated exercise with the operation at hand. At a multi-agency response, it is his chance to win the confidence of the other units' supervisory team.

2) Specific Assignments

Here is where definite tasks are ascribed to particular individuals, teams and support agencies. The plan must always provide for some manner of personal supervision (recognized by the military as the "last and most important troop leading step"). This is a fine time to extend professional courtesy to assisting agencies by publicly recognizing their areas of special competence.

3) Organization for Movement

Precise travel directions to assembly areas and trailheads, carpooling instructions, primary and alternate routes of approach and egress (particularly for helicopter evacuation and ground ambulance), and enroute fuelling opportunities, where applicable, should be provided in this section of the operation order. If the unit will travel in convoy fashion, the "Order of March" will be described, perhaps with deliberate spacing of heavy duty, winch-equipped or four-wheel drive vehicles. The "Lead" and "Last-Man" vehicles will be designated in order to foster convoy integrity.

4) Coordinating Instructions

One of the most challenging leadership problems is to get the necessary people to the right place at the proper time. Therefore, this section includes, but is never limited to, these items:

*   a) Times of departure from assembly areas;

*   b) Desired times of arrival;

*   c) Time and place of inspections or rehearsals;

*   d) Demobilization responsibilities, such as accountability for equipment and personnel;

*   e) Debriefing times and locations; and,

*   f) Persons to submit after-action reports, line-of-duty injury reports, communications logs, etc.

ADMINISTRATION and LOGISTICS: The military professional knows this as the "Beans, Bullets, and Band-Aids" section of the format. Search and Rescue personnel are no less concerned about where their vittles will come from, what type of gear they will have to haul, and who is going to care for the injured. These are some things the Boss must address in this component:

  1. The type of equipment and clothing necessary for the operation as dictated by the situation and the terrain, and who will provide it.
  2. The anticipated period of self-sufficiency required for the operation in terms of food and water.
  3. The time and location(s) for resupply.
  4. Methods available for routine and emergency evacuation.
  5. Schedules for the relief of personnel.
  6. Base camp administration: chronological diary of events, radio transmissions, situation up-date, etc. Either a written log or tape recorded entries will suffice.

COMMAND and COMMUNICATIONS: In this section the Boss will immediately identify the location of the Command Post (CP), and define the tactical chain of command. It is appropriate here to issue any pertinent policy statements, such as the management of press relations, legal criteria for the movement of the missing person if found deceased, or the abandonment of unit owned equipment. Describe policy for managing on-site relatives or friends of the lost person. What will be done with well-intentioned, untrained volunteers? Issue and record all radio call signs that will be used and identify tactical and administrative radio frequencies. Review any special field signals such as whistles, smoke, aerial flares, or ground to air panels, and designate acknowledgement signals if universals are not to be used.

It is important to determine and announce directives for action to be taken at nightfall or during sudden inclement weather (define what the latter will be). Publish time schedules for reassembly, probable criteria for suspending the search, and the desired format for periodic situation reports (sit-reps) or status updates.

Comprehensive and flexible, the Fiver Paragraph Operation Order greatly enhances the success of the Search and Rescue mission by organizing all the available information into a standard format and reducing the possibility of omitting essential data. It is an outline for action, and can be used for information gathering, data dissemination, and task assignment, as well as for post-operation critique.

The Five Paragraph Operation Order, (SMEAC) is prefaced by the Boss's size-up, or Estimate of the Situation (EOS), and involves the continuous mental evolutions of Analysis, Action, and Anticipation (AAA).

A well-constructed plan is paramount in making the most efficient use of available resources for covering the search area and effecting the most expeditious possible recovery of the lost person.

Search and Rescue Society of British Columbia
E-mail: SARBC Contacts
Last Updated: Friday, 28-Jan-2000 22:59:21 PST